Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

Thursday, January 17, 08 -- Whale's death dumbfounding --- new TH'ing website


NOTE: I have begun a treasure hunting blog for anyone into digging treasure in South Jersey – with tips and finds that apply to all areas of TH’ing. If you’re into such stuff, please check out http://digtreasure.ning.com – and please let anyone else into this hobby that the site is open to one and all.

Thursday, January 17, 2008:

WHALE OF A MYSTERY: While I’ve had no formal forensic detective training, I’ve watched enough Tru-TV, formerly Court TV, to ace even the most demanding final exams on forensic science. That’s why I was among the first to openly suggest something was weird about the dead True’s beaked whale that washed up on the beach just south of the Holyoke Avenue jetty over the holidays.

My first clue: The 16-foot marine mammal looked healthy as all get-out, short of being decidedly deceased. That fine creature looked as if it should have been out there joyfully swimming around near the continental shelf as it returned from a seasonal jaunt to waters north of its usual range.

Upon arrival at stranding site, Bob Schoelkopf, head of the Brigantine Marine Mammal Stranding Center, was also immediately suspicious. He arranged for the rare whale to be painstakingly driven to the University of Pennsylvania for a necropsy. Even with the experts dissecting for all they were worth, no apparent cause of death could be found and parts of the whale have been sent to both the Smithsonian Institute and the Navy.

Truth e told, the cause of death had become something of a baffler. And that’s not a good thing, in the same way that a seemingly healthy person suddenly passing with no outward raises warning flags – and protective surgical masks.

As you may have read, there is the issue of submarine sonar possibly being the culprit, specifically the Navy's experimental Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS), which has been shown to cause catastrophic neurological damage to whales, in particular deep-diving whales like the True’s. There have been a couple television specials on the danger modern sonar presents to certain marine creatures.

Of course, the military, in typical exclusivity, not only denies any such impacts but essentially doesn’t care to talk about it, using national security as an out.

The closest the Navy has come to even acknowledging its newest sonar may harm marine life came in the wake of a catastrophic die-off of 16 whales near the Bahamas in March, 2006. Per a website called lowfrequencyactiveradar.net, an interim report from the Navy found the Bahamian strandings were caused "by the unusual combination of several contributory factors acting together."

The Navy and NMFS concluded that the presence of the whales in a restrictive ocean channel, during calm water conditions which reflect and amplify sounds, caused the Navy's sonar to damage the whale's ears, leading them to beach themselves.

Interestingly, Schoelkopf told me that the cause of the Bahamian die-off might have gone unexplained if an expert on marine mammals hadn’t been vacationing there just as the event took place. That doctor did in-the-field necropsies, finding dramatic evidence of catastrophic damage to the central nervous systems of the animals.

The always-aggressive Natural Resource Defense Council has no doubt the sound waves cripple whales. In a recent release, it referenced a study confirming its fears.

“According to a report by the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission, one of the world's leading bodies of whale biologists, the evidence linking sonar to a series of whale strandings in recent years is ‘very convincing and appears overwhelming.’ Despite the broad scientific consensus that military active sonar kills whales, the use of this deadly sonar in the world's oceans is spreading.”

Despite all this low-frequency hubbub, I’m guessing the stranded True’s whale in Beach Haven was not a victim of sonar. My only rationale stems from the fact that the sonar-related Bahamian whales displayed, upon necropsy, obvious organ damage. The fact that the university found no apparent cause of death on the Holyoke stranding implies something far more insidious.

Sidebar: Though the necropsy showed the Holyoke whale had an empty stomach, I do not think that is as indicative as it might sound. Firstly, both Schoelkopf and myself noticed some signs of discharge that indicated the animal had eaten fairly recently. What’s more, in a traumatic situation as this whale was undoubtedly experiencing, regurgitation is a common bodily response, as is voiding of fecal matter. The body fat on this creature spoke of good times, until then.

By the by, a couple folks on-scene at the stranding wondered if the southern-ish whale may have become stuck in cold water. Not a chance. This deep-diving species frequents the ocean depths where cold water is the norm.

I even heard a couple guesses that the whale might have simply been depressed. Hey, don’t laugh. These are very complex animals and in captivity many of them suffer from very human-like mood swings, including severe depression. However, psychological problems indubitably lead to a slow wasting away brought on by starvation.

I do want to say it’s mighty impressive how much effort is going into ascertaining what killed this whale. It not only shows a due respect to these amazing creatures but it reflects the huge conscientiousness of whales in this country.

As a sidebar to my daily fishing/nature blogsite (http://jaymanntoday.ning.com/), I couldn’t help but sardonically reflect on the value of this creature in purely fiscal terms. To take a swipe at the Japanese whale fishing efforts, I wrote,

On a bizarre but appropriate note, that 2,000-pound creature would be worth a small mint on the sushi market – many hundreds of thousands of dollars. It seems the Japanese are particularly drawn to the rarest whales to try out, taste-wise. This rarity would have likely brought $10 for three tiny piece of meat (less than an ounce) on sushi rice.

NO (!), I’m not a proponent of such epicurean idiocy. In fact, the latest whaling effort by Japan fishermen is despicable and essentially screams, “Screw you!” to the realm of world conservation of diminishing populations of marine mammals.”

YOU SAY TOMATO, I SAY INTERCOASTAL: It’s affectionately known as the ICW, that insider water route from Jersey to Florida – with a million and one bayside stops in-between.

While more than a few mariners know their sections of the ICW like the backs of their hands, it’s a whole other thing for them to take the long way to the ICW, as in speaking aloud what those three letters actually stand for.

Truth be told, I’d always been told it meant the Intercoastal Waterway. The problem is not only does my spell check refuse to accept the world intercoastal – it instead offers some obscure totally un-navigable mathematical term as a replacement -- but most major mapmakers, encyclopedias and the likes of the Army Corps of Engineers also shun that seemingly likely choice of nomenclature for a channel that is, well, both inter and coastal.

The preponderance of academic evidence points to intracoastal as opposed to intercoastal.

On the “tra” side of things, the know-it-all Wikepedia reads, “The Intracoastal Waterway is a 4,800-km (3,000-mile) recreational and commercial waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. Some lengths consist of natural inlets, salt-water rivers, bays, and sounds; others are man-made canals.

“The waterway runs the length of the Eastern Seaboard (Maine to Miami, Florida), from its unofficial northern terminus at the Manasquan River in New Jersey, where it connects with the Atlantic Ocean at the Manasquan Inlet, to Brownsville, Texas …”

On the other hand, Reed’s Nautical Almanac purports, “The Intercoastal Waterway, or ICW, is a toll-free channel—part canal, part natural waterway—that stretches for more than 1,000 statute miles from Norfolk, Virginia to Miami, Florida.”

In the same vein, the word intermural is often used instead of intramural. This usage discrepancy is addressed in an uppity way in Paul Brians’ book “Common Errors in English Usage” Brians writes, “Intramural” means literally ‘within the walls’ and refers to activities ... ‘Intermural’ is constantly both said and written when ‘intramural’ is meant. ...”

Even allowing for local colloquial quirks in pronunciation, I have to admit that the bayside channel that runs along the Eastern Seaboard is most likely, i.e. correctly, defined as the Intracoastal Waterway. Not that my spell check likes that word any better. Of course, my spell check is from, like, Oklahoma or some state like that. Besides, that guy Brians sounds like a stuffed neck you just don’t want to mess with, at least not verbally. I can envision walking behind him constantly poking him in the small of a back with loaded magic marker. “What’s that say to you, hot shot?”

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